Wednesday, October 17, 2007

New Worlds/Universes/Alternate Existences, and the Most Amazing Semi-Retired Clown Ever

I've been in research /decision-making /make-up-your-mind-already mode for some time now regarding my latest manuscript. It’s a humorous middle grade novel about a kid, a circus, and one other hilarious detail I won't disclose at this time but which will make for a very unique story indeed. THIS much I've known for some time now. The problem is, that’s also pretty much ALL I know about it.

Usually when I come up with an idea for a story, I contemplate all of the many options I have for where the story could go. I mull these options over and then I pick one. Simple as that.

Of course, I often do wind up eventually changing my mind about some of those said decisions for one reason or another, but that’s okay. At least a decision was made, a rough draft begun. But so far that usual process of mine hasn’t happened with this new story. I’ve been completely and utterly stuck on some very basic decisions for what seems like forever. For example:

Will this kid be a boy or a girl?

Will his/her parents know that he/she is planning to join the circus? And if the kid does run away, how will he/she get to where he/she is going safely? Will he/she just hop on a bus? Because the last thing I want to do is encourage a bunch of 12 year olds to catch the nearest Greyhound out of town! But then again, a kid plotting/planning/going-it-alone can be very exciting reading. Do you see my conundrum here?

And if you add all these details together with the many other currently non-existent major plot points in this story it might begin to look something like this:

(character’s gender + any other character specifics + major plot points) – the ability to make up my dang mind = writer’s block squared to the pi

Or something like that. Have I mentioned yet how much I HATE math?

So anyway, as you can see, I haven’t exactly hit the ground running with this story. But that’s okay, because that’s all about to change.

Last week Carson and Barnes, a traveling circus of the death-defyingly entertaining sort, came to my town. With them they brought a bunch of cute and cuddly elephants the size of my living room, a smiling pygmy hippopotamus named Katie, and a pack of dancing poodles, as well as several other various species of animal.

I knew all of this was going to happen (well some of it anyway) in advance thanks to our local newspaper. The paper had recently run an article about the dozens of letters from PETA that typically followed this circus to every town. And in this article were some very reassuring words from the head-circus-folk regarding their ethically-correct elephant care, along with an invitation to the general public to come on out on the morning the circus arrived to watch the animals as they were unloaded. The idea being that the general public would then see for themselves just how elephant-friendly the circus is.

Now let me tell you, I’m very much against the unethical treatment of animals—I love animals— but I’m also very much NOT the type of person who’d ever intentionally find herself anywhere near any area that had even the tiniest bit of protest-potential. I am a great big chicken. And I’m fairly certain if I were to ever take part in—or stand accidentally near—an actual protest, I would either A) get arrested or B) wind up an unwitting bystander during molotov-cocktail-hour. And I didn’t really like either of those options. However, I couldn’t get the public invitation to come watch the arrival out of my mind.

You see, two weeks before the article ran, I’d received the obligatory buy-one-get-one-free coupons for circus tickets in the mail. And I’d seriously considered taking my kids to see it because 1) they’d never seen a circus before, 2) it might be fun, and 3) it would be a great research opportunity for my new manuscript. And I must say number 3 weighed heaviest on my mind. With the receipt of the coupons I had also finally received the realization of why exactly I’d been suffering from chronic manuscript indecision:

I was afraid.

That’s right, AFRAID. What did I know about the circus? Absolutely nothing! I’d only ever been to ONE circus in my entire life, and the only thing I really remembered about it was that my mother developed a huge crush on the brawny (and nicely tanned) lion tamer. And that really wasn’t going to help me with my book, now was it? So exactly how was I supposed to create a fantastical world in which some kid would spent his/her entire life— a world that would shape everything he/she knew— if I knew nothing about that world myself?

Now I know what you might be thinking here: JK Rowling never went to a school of witchcraft and wizardry, yet she managed to create that world just fine. Which is true. However, there aren’t exactly any wizard headmasters waiting to come out of the woodwork to point out the fallacies of the world she’s created either. Yet, if I were to paint a very off-base portrait of circus life, I can assure you there are many varied species of circus folk all up in that woodwork, and I for one did not want to be responsible for them coming out of it. So obviously, there was no way I could move forward with this story. That is, at least, until I’d done some very serious circus research. I had to KNOW something about what I was trying to write.

And so in my hands I held the answer (those coupons, remember?): I would take my kids to the circus, and I would solve all my writer’s-block-related problems at the same time!

“But”, the annoying voice of conscience inside me declared, “what if you take your kids to this small traveling circus which you know absolutely nothing about and discover there are molotov-packing-protesters or, worse yet, sad and obviously unethically treated elephants there? What then? Huh?”

And the voice had a point. I couldn’t take my kids to this circus not knowing what we’d find. And so there I was, right back at square one. No firsthand research. No questions answered. No decisions made.

But then it happened. The public invitation which came in the form of the newspaper article. I’d go down to the fair grounds, watch the circus folk unload their animals, see the big-top assembled, make sure everything was safe for my kids, gather all sorts of first-hand intel on circus life, and maybe even spy on a few circus kids while I was at it. Not that I’m in the habit of spying on children, mind you. I’m NOT! But, come on, what writer doesn’t do some innocent eavesdropping from time to time? And this was in the name of Research! But with all that said— all these great reasons— I was still too chicken to go. (Remember: protesters + molotov-cocktails + sad elephants does NOT = me) I would just have to wait until next year when the much larger, more well-known circus came to town to safely do my research. My mind was made up. And yet— as always seems the case— as much as I’d finally made a decision about something/anything, fate had other plans.

Fate came one morning in the form of a brightly painted convoy of circus trucks rolling into town just as I drove my son to preschool. All it took was one look at my sweet boy’s very sad, I’ll-never-get-to-go-to-the-circus-will-I? face to change my mind yet again.

I dropped son off at school, screwed-up my courage, set aside my "It" induced dislike for clowns (thanks a ton Stephen King!), and followed the convoy to the fair grounds. Once there, I was relieved to find happy, well-rested elephants, and NO Molotov packing protesters. Instead there were just a couple of curious grandmas pushing excited kids in strollers, and some local reporters who quickly decided I MUST be a spy from a competing paper and therefore shot dirty looks at me the entire time we were there. But otherwise, all was calm. Calm, that is, if you didn’t count the magic unfolding in front of me.

Dozens of men calmly but quickly went about their jobs, each one knowing exactly what to do; roll out tarps, pound stakes into the ground, spread a maze of cables. In the course of one morning these men flawlessly created an alternate existence beneath a brightly colored big-top. A place you could go to forget about your everyday life, to lose yourself in the experience of mesmerizingly-graceful women twirling through the air, men somersaulting over pits of fire, motorcycles racing down a wire 40 feet above the crowd. And all of this taking form right in front of me where only hours before there had been nothing but an empty field of dust and grass; where mere hours later it would all disappear again into the dead of night, leaving no trace of the magic created. If you ever get a chance to witness a circus in the making, I highly recommend it.

While at that fairground, not only was I the recipient of reporters’ dirty looks, not only did I get to watch the big-top unfold, and to do a little spying for myself, but I also did SO much more. Thanks to my advanced investigative skills (ie: I walked up to a guy who looked like he belonged there and said, “Hi”) I eventually earned an introduction to the man who could finally answer all of my circus questions. That man’s name was Poppa D.

Poppa D was a former PE teacher— and semi-retired clown— who also happened to be the teacher in charge of “home”-schooling all of the kids who traveled and performed with Carson and Barnes. Poppa D warmly welcomed me into his life that day. He allowed me to attend “class” all morning under the fairground pavilion and I couldn’t have dreamt of a more amazing opportunity to gain insight into what it would be like growing up in the circus.

Fourteen year old Julie spoke very little English (and she was quite shy), so I didn’t really bond with her as much as I did the others, but I will never be able to thank eleven year old Eric and twelve year old Francesca enough for sharing as much of their lives with me as they did that day. Forget about the new world I would soon be creating, these kids opened up a whole new UNIVERSE. A universe filled with experiences, hopes, fears, and daily trials, but above all else their ability to inspire— not only in the hearts of children everywhere, but in ME— a sense of immense wonder and limitless imagination. This was by far one of the most eye-opening, enriching mornings I had ever had the pleasure of living.

Of course, I could continue to write here for hours about my whole circus experience that day—everything I saw, did, learned—but I won’t. You might eventually get tired of reading about it, if you haven’t already, and besides, I really should save some of it for my book, because right now— at long last— I’ve got some very important decisions that are ready to be made.

Current Mood: Inspired

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